Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Old Wives Tales

ComNavOps hates unsubstantiated truisms.  They’re generally nothing but old wives tales.  Unfortunately, a few of the popular ones have surfaced in our last post discussion.

  1. Older ships are too expensive to operate.  The corollary is that it’s cheaper to buy a new ship than operate an old one.
  2. The (fill in the blank ship class – we’re talking about Ticos, in this case) class is nearing the end of its life and has been used up and can’t continue to serve.

Let’s look a bit closer at the “old ships are too expensive to operate” belief. 

This is slightly true but not to any appreciable extent.  Yes, an older ship may have more expensive spare parts but those kinds of cost differentials are non-existent on a relative basis.  Yes, an older class may have an older technology that has been totally bypassed by something newer and hugely cheaper to operate but, realistically, how many times in history has that happened?  The component pieces of equipment on the Ticos cost the same to operate as those on the latest Burkes.

What about maintenance?  People make the claim that maintenance is much greater on an older ship than a newer one.  Bilgewater!  In a properly maintained fleet, the maintenance requirements of all ships are essentially the same.  Maintaining a LM2500 turbine is the same regardless of the age of the ship/turbine.  Yes, equipment may require an overhaul periodically but that applies to all ships, regardless of age, unless the ship is in the first months of its life.  Even then, that’s not a guarantee of low maintenance – ask the LCS Milwaukee!

Now, there is one maintenance scenario that supports the claim of being more expensive on an older ship and that’s for the case of a ship that’s been badly neglected for many years and then the maintenance bill can be quite high.  That, however, is not normal or should not be normal.  In fact, that’s a case that calls for firing or courts martial of those in charge.

Manning is the one area that has a somewhat valid claim to lower operating costs.  Automation has reduced crew size on newer ships, true, but that’s a false savings as we’ll find out when we engage in combat and realize we don’t have enough crew for extended stints at battle stations or for conducting damage control.  Also, there’s nothing that prevents an older ship from being automated during an upgrade.

What about upgrades?  Older ships need periodic upgrades which are expensive, right?  Again, bilgewater!  You do realize that the first thing a brand new ship fresh off of trials does is enter drydock for a maintenance and upgrade period?  It’s a fact of ship life that ships undergo periodic upgrades but that begins in the ship’s first year of life and continues periodically throughout its life.  The frequency and cost don’t change as the ship gets older.  Yes, we sometimes opt to do a very extensive mid-life upgrade but it is not a requirement and it’s quite cheap compared to new construction.  We’ve tracked some Burke/Tico upgrades and seen that they run around $30M-$60M.  Heck, even the mid-life refueling and upgrade of a nuclear carrier is cheap at around $3B compared to the cost of a new carrier and that’s the ultimate worst case.  A major, major Tico upgrade would be $50M-$100M.  That’s nothing!

So, what are we left with?  We’re left with an unsubstantiated claim, oft repeated, that older ships are more expensive to operate.  Unless someone can provide some data to the contrary, this claim is untrue.

Now let’s look at the claim that older ships have been used up and have no more life in them.  I think you know the summary judgment on this one – bilgewater!  A 28-30 year old ship is not used up unless the Navy has criminally allowed the ship to deteriorate beyond repair.  Even then, a ship can be repaired.  People seem to think that there is some sort of magical process whereby a ship becomes less seaworthy when it reaches a certain age.  Completely untrue.  Let’s look at some examples.

The Enterprise served 50 years and, at the end of that time, was still completely seaworthy and could have continued to serve for another 50 if we so chose.  Unless there are holes in the hull (and even hull sheet metal can be replaced), every piece of equipment can be replaced.  Yes, the nuclear reactor makes a carrier a special case due to nuclear fatigue but I’m illustrating the seaworthiness of the hull.  Turbines, berthing, catapults, arresting gear, or anything else can be replaced.

Well, OK, you say but that only applies to large ships.  Smaller ships wear out faster, right?  Wrong.  The LCUs are in the vicinity of 50 years old and still going strong.  Perry’s are continuing to serve around the world and will do so for many years to come.

The point is that end of life is a purely arbitrary concept.  We can replace anything.  Consider the example of the B-52 which is still serving and expected to continue for many years to come.   

Again, the cost of doing the upgrades necessary to keep a ship operating is very cheap compared to the cost of new construction.

Unconvinced?  Let me give you a concrete example.  Suppose we consider the case for a new Tico versus maintaining the ones we have via upgrades.  A new Tico would cost around $2.5B (or more!).  A major upgrade for a Tico would cost around $100M and let’s say it buys us 10 more years of service per ship.  Those are all pretty reasonable numbers.  So, at $2.5B, we can fund 25 Tico upgrades and gain 250 ship-years of service (25 ships x 10 years).  Compare that to the single new Tico that we could buy for $2.5B which would give us 30 ship-years.  That’s 30 ship-years for one new ship versus 250 ship-years for 25 upgrades.  The choice seems clear.

If you’re going to cite a truism, back it up with data.  Otherwise, it’s simply not valid.  These two truisms are proffered by the Navy as a means to justify their obsession with new construction and, like so much the Navy spouts, are untrue.


  1. Maintenance costs aren't actually a smooth flow of money. Part of the work comes like that, sure, but there are big lumps too. For example, those LM 2500 gas turbines need replacing periodically, and that involves buying a new set for the ship that needs them. This makes the whole decision about maintain-or-replace more complicated, when the politicians want simple.

    1. John, I stated that overhauls, which is what you're describing, begin in year one of a ship's life and continue every few years, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the life of the ship. The frequency, scope, and cost of the overhauls do not appear to have any relationship to the ship's age.

      A mid-life comprehensive overhaul to add new capabilities is a one-time expense but that is a special case, is not a direct function of the ship's age, and is not expensive relative to new construction costs.

      Yes, there can be "toss a coin" upgrade decisions but the Navy's choices are baffling. Trying to early retire 11 Aegis cruisers with BMD capability among them is absolutely stunningly stupid. The most powerful AAW ship in the world by a wide margin and the Navy wants to retire them before their service life is even reached????

  2. Jackie Fischer would disagree and I'm of a mind to agree with him.
    Its not quite that clear-cut if course, many a fleet has realised its vast numerical superiority was worthless

    Id apply that to Russias huge stockpiles if Ww2 era tanks and chinas Korea era jets.

    The lcs and zumwalt are both dogs, but a clean sheet cruiser wouldn't look like a tico.

    Both the raptor and the typhoon have hilariously high kill ratios against F15s.

    At some point, life extension is a pointless exercise, where that it, hard to judge, a complex equation of ship, systems and sub systems

    A carrier is effectively a lump of steel on which easily exchangeable aircraft land
    A destroyer is an expensive aegis system irrecoverably attached to a lump of steel.

    1. You're correct. No matter how many upgrades we apply to a Sopwith Camel it can't accomplish the mission. That is not, however, the case with the Aegis cruisers - the most powerful AAW vessel in the world, many with BMD capability and the Navy wants to retire them before their service life is even met. Stunningly stupid.

  3. I don't know if it's cost effective or structurally feasible, but I would like the Tico's upgunned with one or two AGS-Lite guns. The AGS-Lite is about half the weight of the original AGS but about twice the weight of the 5"/54 Mark 45. Even if it came with only a couple hundred rounds per mounting, it would be a big improvement and a small return on the hundreds of millions spent on development.

    1. In what way would the AGS-lite be an improvement? I'm not disagreeing, just trying to understand what you see as the benefit because it may not be as straightforward as it might seem.

    2. For starters, introducing a modest number of AGS-Lite guns would improve our capability to provide naval gunfire support during amphibious landings and for land attacks. I have no doubt there would be many technical challenges, but I think it's worth a look. It would be nice to give an old dog a bigger bark and bite.

      There was talk about retrofitting the USS Thorn (DD-988) with an aft-mounted AGS, but I'm not sure what became of that effort.

    3. The LM data sheet on the LRLAP cites a range of 63nm. If the Navy insists on a 50+ mile standoff for amphibious assaults, the AGS will barely reach shore - that's one potential problem.

      A larger concern is the fact that the LRLAP is INS/GPS guided. That's great for readily identified, fixed point targets but is problematic for mobile or area targeting.

      Lesser concerns are the low rate of fire (6 rpm) and small magazine.

      I guess I see the AGS-lite as a small upgrade in capability, though with notable limitations. Whether that's worth the cost to upgrade is something I doubt.

      What do you think?

    4. My understanding was that the Spruance hulls were already pretty heavily stressed. Tacking on double weight guns would be tough.

    5. If the Navy insists on 50+ mile standoff ranges for amphibious assaults, then nobody should complain about the need for naval gunfire support because no gun can fire that far with a significant warhead. The Mk 71 8" is good for about 20 miles.

      At least AGS/AGS-Lite is available today, whether it makes sense to use them on the Tico's or another platform is another matter.

  4. The Navy has redone/rebuilt hulls many times over its history. I think you can make arguments for and against. I tend to be for, I think the Navy got great use out of the Destroyers it FRAM'd back in the day. The GUPPY boats weren't bad investments either. Heck, the 80's reactivation of the BB's had some good arguments behind it.

    But I think in this day and age, with 3 3 billion 'destroyers' coming out of shipyards, and ~700m gun boats coming out, redoing old equipment can make alot of sense. Military acquisition in general is broken. It would be nice to still have the Spruance's. It would be nice to have maintained and re-done the Perry's. But we don't have that.

    We have old Tico's, and a range of age of 'Burkes that are getting used hard, and what with INSURV being classified its a mystery as to how well they are being maintained.

    As to updating things... its difficult to believe that its as impossible as people say. The Tico's use the same VLS cells the rest of the Navy does. The same gun. The same powertrain. Aegis sensors can be replaced. Servers can be replaced with faster ones. Heck, with software advances you can likely get new use out of existing servers.

    My idea, and it may be fanciful, is this:

    Over at information dissemination they are wrangling over the LCS; and several people have said the Navy needs a broad based review of mission. I wholeheartedly agree. Once we know what we want to do we can build to that need. A mission definition for the Navy allows things like 'modularity' to maybe work because it fits into a philosophical framework instead of a press release. I propose:

    A) We need a current state analysis. What condition are our ships in? Are they maintained? Do the weapons systems work? What needs to be done to get them functional and well maintained? Put a halt on new construction until we get our mission defined. Build out what is there now (we have some LCS's like 60% complete. Just finish them) but don't make any more. The existing fleet made up to snuff will hold the line.

    B) Conduct a strategy review for the whole Navy. What is the role of the US Navy today? What goals do we want it to accomplish? How will it go about accomplishing those goals? What tools does it need? How do we go about supporting those (really expensive) tools over their life? How can we future proof them to an extent.

    C) Design those ships to meet the defined requirements. Build a little, test alot, learn alot, settle the design, then go into serial production. This will stabilize the industrial base alot more than a 3 billion dollar Zumwalt, or a couple of up gunned ferry's.

    D) Execute the mission with the new and old ships. Plan for another mission'design review in a few years to take changes into account.

  5. My problem wish this way of thinking is not that old ships are not useful or economical but simply old ships are supposed old history be mothballed as a ready reserve. That way if say a major war broke out tomorrow in short order old retired ships could be re activated and recent retires pulled back into active to man them. Basically a stop gap multiple of the current fleet a little dated but still in the near capability to out match most or our even peer enemies. If nothing else to fill the rear patrol area, escort duties.

    If we are down to what should be major war ready reserve for just holding the peace we need to make a MAJOR mission statement change.

    What the US Navy really needs is some good leaders to step up and start ringing the bell active/retired whatever both it needs to be done. The US Navy and Air Force is woefully underfunded. If we don't have any leaders able willing to make the case why the navy/airforce IS THE WALL that buys the army the time to spin up for either defense or more likely offensive operations to support reinstate our allies we are f*cked.

    Of course we need politicks willing to hear and accept a professional military mans opinion. Another argument another day.

    1. I agree with most everything you said. The only tiny disagreement is funding. Rather than being underfunded, I believe we're incorrectly funded. In other words, if we were spending wisely we'd have plenty of money. Drop the LCS, drop the F-35, build Nimitz's instead of Fords, and so on. You get the idea. We could free up lots of money by spending wisely.

    2. The Fords aren't bad. They just stuck too many gadgets that aren't mature enough to go to sea yet. That and they pushed out the build time which always costs more money.

    3. Seal, the Ford is going to cost somewhere around $5B more than the last Nimitz built and to gain what? The few marginal improvements could have been easily incorporated into the next Nimitz for far less money.

  6. Completely agree with you, CNO, I just want to attach to something.

    "Now let’s look at the claim that older ships have been used up and have no more life in them. I think you know the summary judgment on this one – bilgewater! A 28-30 year old ship is not used up unless the Navy has criminally allowed the ship to deteriorate beyond repair. Even then, a ship can be repaired. People seem to think that there is some sort of magical process whereby a ship becomes less seaworthy when it reaches a certain age. Completely untrue."

    The USS Laffey (DD-724), one of the hardest ran destroyers in history (having taken more damage than the Yamato and still limped out of it), they believe - with 'relatively minor' repairs - has another 30 to 40 years left in her hull - years of active service, that is.
    Certainly, she'd be obsolete by destroyer standards, but as far as hull life goes...

    If the tiny Tin Cans of WW2 can be kept alive indefinitely - even the one that was trying to sink itself - there is no reason why a well taken care of warship hull could not be maintained.

    - Ray D.

  7. The Enterprise could have served another 50 years?? Um...no. Ships get old and worn and she fit that category. You can't get a warship going forever. When you talk about turbines and other things you are talking serious money to open up the hull, rip out the old, and put in new. Even then you cross your fingers that there aren't any issues you missed.

    Before anyone brings up the Iowa class remember that those ladies barely had any miles on them compared to other ships. They served from 8-9 years before mothballing with the New Jersey doing time off of Vietnam. I've heard that it cost the equivalent of a Perry frigate to bring them into the modern age. Then you had to train crews to operate equipment that hadn't been used by the rest of the fleet for 10-20 years.

    Here's what an expert on other board said when I asked: In general, what would be considered a good life expectancy for a modern warship. Excluding politics and all the rest that tend to keep them in service longer than they should.

    Answer: "That's something that gets decided when the ship is designed. Mostly, surface combatants are designed for a life of between 25 and 30 years but that can change. Some ships are over-engineered to the point where they can last significantly longer. some ships decay very quickly in service. Basically, the issue is decided by somebody who plots the annual repair and maintenance costs of a ship against her age and tries to spot where the curve is inflecting upwards. Also, if something dramatic has to be done that would require major unbudgeted changes, that can change the equation. That's what happened to the Spru-cans.

    The Ticos are in that age group now. They are getting to the point where they're becoming expensive to maintain and we really should be replacing them. The really interesting question is, what with?"

    1. Seal, you simply repeated the truisms that I just disproved! What, specifically, about the Enterprise would have prevented her from continuing in service?

      You claim the Ticos are "becoming expensive to maintain". I just debunked that. If you think I'm wrong, give me some data or logic to support it. Otherwise, you're just repeating an old wives tale.

    2. May I ask what kind of background you have? I have no problem admitting that my 'experience' comes from books and asking questions from people who have true qualifications.

      Your idea of rebuilding the Enterprise means you've conceded the argument right there. Rebuilding Enterprise would cost as much as a new carrier and still leave us with a fifty year old hull instead of a new one. Add in how much technology is changes and the radical differences between Ford and Enterprise that makes the former a much more effective ship and its obvious how inappropriate rebuilding Enterprise would be. The simple response to your argument is "Concession accepted".

    3. Look what happened to Australia which updated afew OHP class ships, putting a VL module for ESSM sea sparrow, and upgrading SM-1 to SM-2( using existing launcher)
      There didnt seem to be much physical changes.
      However the cost was way over budget ( as usual on these refits) and took longer.
      I notice too on phots of HMAS Sydney that a external reinforcing strap was added along the side , so there were structural problems , unrelated to additions.
      Upgrade finished in 2008, but she was decommissioned since beginning 2015.
      6 years extra life ?. A replacement is not due for another 4 years or so.
      IT may be on old wives tale but these problems with upgrades are real and hardly extend their lives .

    4. If there's any country that has a more restricted budget and worse cost controls than the US, it's Australia. They built the upside down submarine! Despite their inept management, the Perry upgrade still only cost around $100M. Given the cost of a new, proper frigate to replace a Perry would be $1.5B - $2.0B, that upgrade cost is peanuts. How long Australia opted to use the Perrys has nothing to do with the viability of the upgrade or the age of the ship. It was just a budget decision and upgraded Perrys will continue to serve around the world for many years to come.

    5. "Rebuilding Enterprise would cost as much as a new carrier... "

      Seal, c'mon, you're not even trying to be realistic. The most massive and extensive upgrade possible is the mid-life refueling and comprehensive overhaul that a carrier goes through and that only costs a couple billion or so of which the majority is the nuclear work. To claim that it would cost as much to upgrade as to build a new carrier is ludicrous. You might debate the value of an upgrade but the economics are straightforward.

      I'm disappointed. You're not following the blog closely. I've debunked the supposed claims of improvements of the Ford. At best, it will provide some marginal improvements.

      Again, you're just repeating the untrue myths. There are plenty of data points out there about the cost of upgrades. None come remotely close to the cost of new construction. That's data, not opinion. If you want to continue this discussion, use the data and be willing to accept what it demonstrates rather than what you want to believe. That's why I do this blog - to provide data and logic. Join in! Don't feel you have to defend a position. Instead, just follow the data to whatever conclusions they lead to.

  8. CNO,

    We often forget two vital economic concepts in analysis: "sun cost" and "opportunity cost" - both being hugely important to your topic.


    1. "Sunk Cost"


    2. Quite right. Now, how do you see those being applied in this case?

      For example, there is an opportunity cost associated with a new carrier. The $14B Ford represents a LOT of other things that didn't get built. On the other hand, upgrading 22 Ticos would also represent a lot of other things that wouldn't get done. So, there's opportunity cost on both sides of the issue.

  9. The proof is that we give and sometimes sell our "too old" ships to poorer nations with less money to support a Navy, and they keep these ships going another two decades. Nations are even paying for our "old" FFGs. For example, the Knox class frigates are almost 50-years old and most are still in service, from Wiki:

    Chi Yang class FFG-932
    In the 1990s the US agreed to transfer 8 Knox-class frigates to the Republic of China Navy (ROCN). The ROCN planned to upgrade these ships with new air defense, anti-submarine, and electronic warfare capabilities, including new radar, towed active sonar, CIWS guns, VL air defense missiles, active/passive electronic warfare systems, etc. However, due to budget considerations and the acquisition of newer ships, only a few upgrades were implemented. These frigates were renamed the Chi Yang class and assigned to the ROCN 168 Patrol Squadron.[16]

    By 2005 the ROCN had removed several systems from the retired Gearing class upgraded World War II-vintage destroyers and transferred them to the Chi Yang class. These systems include SM-1MR Standard missile in box launchers, H-930 modular combat system, and DA-08 air/surface search radar. Each Chi Yang-class frigate has 10 SM-1 missiles installed in two forward twin box launchers on top of the helicopter hangar, and two triple box launchers installed between the stack and the hangar, pointing to port and starboard.[17]

    The anti-submarine capability of the Chi Yang class is provided by its SQS-26 bow-mounted sonar, SQS-35(v) VDS, SQR-18(v)1 passive TAS, MD500 ASW helicopter, Mk-16 8-cell Harpoon/ASROC box launcher, and 4 x Mk46 324 mm torpedoes. While on ASW patrol, the frigate will carry 2 x Harpoon SSMs and 6 x ASROCs in its Mk-16 box launcher.[18]

    These ships will be upgraded with Hsiung Feng III missiles.[19]

  10. What we need is some honest accounting and the Pentagon seems to be determined to try to avoid that.

    There seems to be an endless cycle of insisting that new weapons will be cheap, super powerful, and solve all problems, claims which never pan out.

    A serious analysis would likely show some very unfavorable aspects (especially in terms of cost and cost effectiveness) of new many of the newer ships.

  11. An audit. A giant freaking audit with a responsibility monster that has giant fangs on a loosely held leash. That is what we need, in my opinion.

    Consider how many billions (with a B!) were spent on:

    Commanche; GCV; F-22; DDG-1000; CG-21; NATF, FCS, Seawolf, Crusader.... with little or nothing to show. Billions were spent, and our future is dependant upon upgraded F-18's from the 90's, unupgraded F-16's, F-15's going through a late and undesired (by the Pentagon) upgrade, F-35 that will arrive in ? numbers with ? capability at ? time, 3 (maybe 2) Zumwalts, and the LCS.

    Considering after Vietnam, with the army in disarray, we were able to get the Blackhawk, Bradley, Abrams, F-14 (ish), F-16, F-18, etc. into our arsenal; and considering our current budget (huge even with sequestration) this is a massive humiliation. And, its a national security issue.

    Security can't happen without money. But money inefficiently spent and poured down rabbit holes means nothing.

    Our budget can be 100 times that of great Britain, China, and Russia combined, but if we p..our it all away, it doesn't matter. When they are fielding new frigates with long range supersonic missiles against our overused, undermaintained, and ill-armed destroyers, cruisers and littoral 'combat' ships, we'll face major issues.

    We have Flight IIa DDG's out there cruising alone. What if a shooting war happens? What will happen to them. They can defend themselves against AsCM's. But what will they shoot at the bad guys?

    We need an audit. Flag ranks, congressmen, and industrial captains all need to face the music. Something like Truman's board to prevent defense fraud in WWII is looking better and better.

    Thus ends my rant.

  12. "A giant freaking audit with a responsibility monster that has giant fangs on a loosely held leash."

    Sure. All you need is a way to persuade congressmen who will lose contributions and jobs in their districts if they back it, to nonetheless do so.

    I don't know the history of US elections well, but I have the impression that getting elected wasn't so expensive in real terms in the 1940s, and being a politician wasn't such a specialised job. There was also a real national emergency going on at the time of the Truman Committee. I doubt you'll get an audit with teeth now until there's been a major US defeat.

  13. The nimitz are old as hell, you can't just "upgrade" them.
    You need to literally replace everything.
    The nimitz also cost a lot more than the fords do, when you account for inflation.

    afaik, generally most of the cost inflation is caused by the government/military constantly changing requirements, not the contractor.

    Regarding the LCS, they appear to be fine ships at a reasonable price, the issue is the modularity meme has kept them nonfunctional, and their intended main weapon(the NLOS missile) was canceled.
    You can't blame the LCS for the fact other programs failed, except for the idea of doing things concurrently.

    1. "You need to literally replace everything."

      Blarg, this blog is based on fact and logic. You're making sweeping statements that are likely untrue. If you choose to make such statements you'll need to back them up with data. For example, this statement about needing to literally replace everything is patently untrue. Even the carrier's extensive mid-life overhauls don't come remotely close to doing that. For instance, HVAC systems/runs/ducting, cable chases, berthing, food storage, water storage, water and waste treatment systems, flight deck elevators, catapults, arresting gear system, galley, aircraft maintenance facilities, JP fuel systems, prop shafts, and a thousand other things are fine for the life of the ship. We can, optionally, choose to replace items if something significantly better becomes available.

      I urge you to go through the archives and read the posts. The LCS, for example, is not a fine ship in any way, shape, or form. We've documented structural weaknesses, helo limitations, acoustic quieting problems, vibration at speed, insufficient or non-existent weight and stability margins, sensor limitations, lack of radar fire control, and many other things. Your general statement is demonstrably wrong. Your may believe the LCS is still worth it (it's not!) but your statement is incorrect.

      I do blame the LCS for attempting to incorporate non-existent technology into the design. Thus, the NLOS failure is the fault of the LCS for incorporating it before it even existed.

      Please be sure to base your comments on data and logic. I encourage my readers to raise the bar on naval discussions.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.